Burundian troops in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are getting roped into the murk of M23 rebels who accuse the troops of working with “enemies.”
The accusations emerged in a statement last week by M23, who say Burundians are collaborating with armed groups that formed out of remnants of the genocidaires in Rwanda who had fled into the DRC after the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
The accusations revisit an age-old tale of how Rwandan and Burundian armed groups have operated inside the Congo but could ruin the warming ties between Rwanda and Burundi.
The M23 rebels had been fighting with the Congolese army (FARDC) as well as an allied self-defence group known as Wazalendo. But roping in Burundi means the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) in which Burundian troops now serve may be in for a challenge.
“The DRC government coalition forces including FARDC, FDLR, mercenaries, militias and Burundi national defence forces have used the areas handed over to EAC to intensify their attack against the civilian population, burning villages, targeted killings, looting and destruction of properties", reads the M23 statement issued on Tuesday.
Lawrence Kanyuka, the M23 spokesperson added "The M23 is greatly concerned about the implication of an EAC chair state and ICGLR state member Burundi in violation of the ceasefire, which implies a planned conspiracy.”
Burundi refuted the assertions.
"These slanderous assertions are a serious insult to the professionalism with which our troops carry out their missions wherever they are deployed. The FDNB (Burundi National Defence Force) unequivocally denies these malicious remarks made for ulterior motives. The Burundian military has never collaborated with any armed group and never intends to do so,” said Col Floribert Biyereke, spokesman for the Burundian army.
He said the accusations were made by ill-intentioned people.
“Despite the efforts made by the Burundian troops in the DRC, it is deplorable that certain ill-intentioned people are making unfounded accusations that the Burundian troops which are deployed in North Kivu are collaborating with armed groups, training them and offering them weapons.”
Eastern DRC has over 100 armed groups, some splinters of initial groups. But there are foreign fighters too. The FDLR (known in French as Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda) for example, is said to be an offshoot of Rwandan genocidaires. The M23 are of Rwandan ethnic communities in the DRC, which has been subject to perennial tensions between Rwanda and the DR Congo.
An earlier directive by regional leaders under the Luanda Process had agreed that all foreign fighters leave DRC and M23 surrender conquered territory in exchange for ceasefire and cantonment.
Most of that has been violated. Kinshasa accuses Kigali of fomenting M23 violence while Kigali says DRC has refused to deal with the FDLR problem. Both sides deny charges levelled against them.
On November 9, the Burundian army spokesman issued a new statement claiming that the Burundian contingent had twice found itself in a conflict situation. "On October 21, the convoy of the Burundian contingent of the East African Community Regional Force carrying supplies to Kitchanga and Mweso (North Kivu) was refused passage by the M23, which blocked the road leading to these two towns.
“The same thing happened again on October 30, when a convoy of the same contingent heading for the same positions was blocked en route by the same M23 elements. The command of the East African Community Regional Force was called in to resolve the matter, but was unable to bring the M23 to its senses.”
Colonel Biyereke warned of “necessary measures” to secure their position.
Relations between Rwanda and Burundi, initially on the rocks, have been normalising recently, as seen through top-rank visits between them.
Diplomatic ties between Rwanda and Burundi had deteriorated from April 2015, following a crisis sparked by protests against the third term of office bid by the late Pierre Nkurunziza. Back then, Burundi accused Rwanda of harbouring its opponents, including the coup plotters who attempted a coup in May 2015. Kigali accused Bujumbura of collaborating with the FDLR rebels.
How far will this potentially explosive situation go? The DRC has said the stay in Congo by the EACRF force should not be renewed on December 8, when its mandate expires.
Congolese authorities have always been satisfied with the Burundian troops. In May, President Félix Tshisekedi stated that of all the East African contingents deployed in the DRC, only the Burundian troops were the ones who met expectations.
“The Burundian army is the only one operating against armed groups as part of the force of East African countries deployed since the end of 2022 in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo", Tshisekedi said, adding that “There is a kind of collaboration between the EAC force and the M23 terrorists. The proof of this is the intervention of the Burundians when the M23 terrorists began illegally levying taxes in the territories they occupied.”
Burundi and the DRC have also stepped up their military cooperation. A new bilateral military agreement was signed between Tshisekedi and Evariste Ndayishimiye in August in Kinshasa.
This agreement had been preceded by another defence agreement signed in March in Bujumbura between Gilbert Kabanda, then Minister for Defence, and his counterpart Alain Tribert Mutabazi. The Burundian army is currently deployed in both Kivus (North and South) to track down local rebels and those of Burundian origin.